Today is my partners birthday so huge shout out to Mary! I am traveling for work on her birthday... Yea I know that sucks. One day Mary asked me what an 18xx game was. This is very uncharacteristic of Mary to ask about heavy board games. So my immediate response was where did you hear about that? She let me know that Ben Mandelker mentioned it on his podcast Watch What Crappens. Thats a podcast about everything Bravo TV, Mary is a huge Real House Wives and Top Chef kinda woman. She and her girl friends actually do a fantasy Top Chef every year.
I am not here to gush on how awesome my partner is. I am here to talk about Ben Mandelker one of the hosts of the Game Brain Podcast. I started listening to it right after Mary mentioned Ben was a host. I have to say I am hooked and love the banter they have and really interesting points on different games. So without mentioning my partner one more time I am going to let you read my interview with Ben without interruption.
I’m Ben Mandelker — a podcaster, writer, and heavy euro game enthusiast living in Los Angeles. My main gig is hosting Watch What Crappens, which is a podcast that focuses on Bravo, but on the side I’m one of the rotating hosts of Game Brain - a podcast about, you guessed it, games!
What got you interested in playing board games?
In 2014 I went to a bachelor party weekend in Lake Tahoe, and someone brought Catan. I had never played it before, but I’ve always enjoyed games; so I sat down to play it. My mind was blown. Like BLOWN. I had never played a game like it. The trading, the inter-dependencies, the engine-building: I was captivated. We immediately played a second game in a row, and then I spent the entire weekend obsessing over it. It was all I could do to not demand playing a third, fourth, fifth, tenth game. I wanted to play it around the clock. One thing with me is that when I become obsessed with something, I consume as much content about it as possible. I immediately scoured the internet to learn more about Catan, and that led me down the rabbit hole of modern board gaming. Turns out there was so much more than just Catan. I’ve been hooked ever since.
What is currently your favorite game to play?
Such a simple question but always so tricky to answer. I currently rank Concordia as my #1 of all time. It’s a brilliant design that’s so straightforward and has so much depth. I’ve played it a billion times over the years, and it never loses its luster. I think anyone who’s building a game collection must own it… … but in terms of what’s my favorite game to play at the moment — the game that has captured my imagination and makes me want to dive in endlessly? I have a split answer. First, there’s an excellent new game on the horizon named Hegemony. It ran a successful kickstarter and will hopefully be arriving to people in the next 18 months or so. I’ve been lucky to receive the prototype and play in person (although, there is a free mod online with Tabletop Simulator). Hegemony is brilliant. One of the most impressive game designs I’ve ever played. Essentially, it’s an asymmetric game with each player representing a segment of a fictional society: the working class, the middle class, the capitalist class, and the State. Over the course of five rounds, the players struggle to be the dominant class in this society. The interdependencies are fascinating and weave narratives that actually provide emotional insight into many real life class struggles. I highly recommend people check it out. Just be warned that the game is a long — reserve a day to play it. My other game that I’m super amped about these days is not really a game but a system: 18xx games. I became hooked on them during the height of the pandemic by playing them on 18xx.games and my interest hasn’t waned. The genre has earned a reputation for being incredibly hardcore and impenetrable, and it could not be farther from the truth. I’m thinking about starting a blog on Board Game Geek, and if I do, one of my first entries will be about demystifying 18xx games. They are a blast. What got you to become involved in the Game Brain podcast?
One of the co-hosts, Jesse, has been a friend of mine for several years in Los Angeles, but we hadn’t seen each other in ages. He announced on Facebook that he was part of a new gaming podcast, Game Brain, and I was like wow I didn’t know Jesse was into games too. We traded some messages, and then started to hang out and play games together on Monday nights. Eventually, he introduced me to the larger Game Brain group, which welcomed me with open arms (I had conned them into thinking I was sweet and lovable). I started playing with the whole gang, and eventually Tom invited me on the show. I’m really grateful because the podcast allowed me to reconnect with a friend and meet a whole bunch of new friends too.
Why do you enjoy talking about games on the podcast?
I’ve always enjoyed voicing my opinion. It’s what I do for a living. The podcast has been wonderful because it finally has given me an outlet to speak my mind on these games, and I get to do it with a group of smart, funny, and well-informed co-hosts. Plus, I love heralding smaller or overlooked games - gems like City Hall, Iki, or Magnate: The First City.
How many games a week do you play to prep for the GB podcast?
It vacillates. I think we all strive to do at least five, but sometimes life gets in the way. If I am only able to get two plays in, I try to let a co-host drive the conversation more. It’s been very tricky for me lately because I’ve been touring for Watch What Crappens, and so my game time has been limited. Plus, it’s hard to gather people in general, but we usually try to get some sessions in on Tuesday and Friday nights. As a reviewer I get a lot of games and some are more fun than others, has playing games ever seemed like more like work than fun for you? I am #blessed that I’m not at that point yet, but I’ve felt glimmers of it. When we reviewed Bitoku, I was very meh on that game, and to have to sit and dedicate hours to it, I really wasn’t thrilled. And in a way that’s a shame because had I played it once, I probably would have left saying “Neat game. Not for me.” But since I had to play it multiple times, my opinion just continued to sag. I really try to keep the annoyance of obligation out of my critiques, but one has to imagine that no matter how hard you try, it must seep in. If you had to play a CO-OP game with a Bravolebrity what would it be and who would you choose to play with?
Haha I love this question. I have often said on the podcast that I want to play Catan with Lisa Rinna; so I imagine playing Pandemic with her would be equally as fun. I could see her being very dramatic about it, especially when she witnesses her first outbreak. Actually, I think the real sweet spot for Bravolebrities would be a semi-coop like Dead of Winter. Just gather Rinna, Ramona Singer, Countess Luann, Kyle Richards, and Karen Huger together and watch them all accuse each other of being a traitor to a zombie cause. Wow. I would actually pay to see that. That would be the dream. What's next for you?
My day to day focus is really on Watch What Crappens. We are touring through April across the US, and then after that I’m hoping to take a much needed break to play some games on my shelf of shame. They’re really stacking up; so it needs to happen. What is the airspeed of an unladen swallow?
African or European??